10 Drivers Every New NASCAR Fan Must Learn About

Bob MargolisContributor IIFebruary 6, 2014

10 Drivers Every New NASCAR Fan Must Learn About

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    "The King" Richard Petty
    "The King" Richard PettyPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    If you're new to NASCAR this year, welcome to a world of speed, danger and a bit of soap opera.

    NASCAR has more than six decades of history behind those great-looking race cars and drivers. The sport has seen thousands of men and women, each unique in their own special way, climb behind the wheel and risk their lives in pursuit of excellence.

    There's no need to catch up on all of NASCAR's past right away. Stay with the sport and eventually you will. However, it does help to know these 10 drivers, for they have left their imprint (or plan to) on the sport in a way few others have.

"The King" Richard Petty

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    "The King" in His Office
    "The King" in His OfficeUncredited/Associated Press

    YESTERDAY

    He's known as "The King" of stock car racing. Richard Petty (here seen in 1964 and in present day on the previous page) has won more races than any other driver in the sport's history.

    He is tied with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup championships with seven. After retiring from driving, Petty became a successful team owner. His organization enters the 2014 season with drivers Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola.

    With his trademark black cowboy hat and oversized belt buckles, Petty is arguably the sport's most recognizable icon.

     

"The Intimidator" Dale Earnhardt Sr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Sr.
    Dale Earnhardt Sr.RUSSELL WILLIAMS/Associated Press

    Perhaps the most beloved driver to ever race in NASCAR, his aggressive driving style, which earned him the nickname "The Intimidator," also earned him an equal number of detractors.

    He was often quoted as saying he "could see the air," which he credited for his success while racing on NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks—which rely heavily on aerodynamics.

    Tied with Richard Petty for the most championships with seven, Earnhardt died at the age of 49 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, a restrictor plate race.

Junior Johnson

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    Junior Johnson  1964
    Junior Johnson 1964Anonymous/Associated Press

    Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. became Junior Johnson when he went stock car racing in 1955. His love of speed came from his days transporting illegal liquor—which he spent time in jail for, later having his sentence pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

    Although his career as a driver stands on its own, with over 300 wins, he is perhaps best known for his days as a team owner, winning six Cup championships.

"Mr. Six-Time" Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson
    Jimmie JohnsonRainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    TODAY

    Jimmie Johnson's sixth Cup title in 2013 places his name among the greats of the sport. His name is synonymous with Chad Knaus, his crew chief.

    The Johnson/Knaus pairing is responsible for six championships in eight years. He is still comparatively young (38 years old) and could possibly eclipse the record held by Petty and Earnhardt Sr.

    Johnson is the preseason favorite to win his seventh title in 2014.

Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff GordonLM Otero/Associated Press

    Jeff Gordon's hiring by team owner Rick Hendrick in 1993 signaled a changing of the guard in the sport. He was not from the South and came from an open-wheel background. He made his mark almost immediately by winning the series championship a mere two years later.

    Many credit the excitement generated by Gordon's arrival in NASCAR with the start of two decades of unprecedented growth for the sport.

    Gordon turns 43 this year and has already talked about the end to his NASCAR career. There is some speculation he may turn to a second career in the entertainment world where he has had stints as co-host of Live! with Kelly and Michael and as host of Saturday Night Live.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. not only carries the name of his famous father, he also counts many of his father's fans among his own. Earnhardt Jr. has not yet won a Cup championship, but that hasn't stopped him from being voted the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR for a record 11th year in a row in 2013.

    His move to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 (also home to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) was seen by most observers of the sport as his best chance to win a championship. And while he has yet to fulfill that promise, it hasn't abated his fans, perhaps the most ardent in NASCAR.

    His name and image are used in a variety of marketing campaigns, and he is the sport's most marketable driver.

Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick
    Danica PatrickSeth Wenig/Associated Press

    While some may criticize Danica Patrick for posing in swimsuits and lingerie for men's magazines (she's never appeared completely naked), Patrick does know how to play like one of the boys when it comes to race cars.

    After a moderately successful career in IndyCar, where she claimed one victory (Japan in 2008) and led laps at the Indianapolis 500, she turned her sights to NASCAR. Patrick found a home with another former IndyCar racer Tony Stewart's Stewart-Haas Racing team and begins her second full season in Sprint Cup cars in 2014.

    She became the first woman to start from the pole position for the sport's most prestigious event, the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2013.

    She does have her detractors. Former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty called Patrick a "marketing machine." And while she has yet to impress in NASCAR, her merchandising sales are among the most lucrative in all of motorsports, and she currently ranks number 91 on the Forbes list of powerful celebrities.

     

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski
    Brad KeselowskiJerry Markland/Getty Images

    Brash, bold and outspoken, Brad Keselowski is one of a new breed of NASCAR driver. Not afraid to say what is on his mind, Keselowski often raises eyebrows with his honest dialog and occasional trash talk. But he can back it up in his race car.

    Another non-Southern NASCAR driver (he is part of a family of racers from Michigan), Keselowski gave legendary team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR Cup title in 2012. 

    Keselowski is extremely active in social media, conversing regularly with his fans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He drew headlines and a $25,000 fine from NASCAR when he tweeted photos from inside of his race car during the 2012 Daytona 500 when the race was halted for a lengthy period of time to clean up the carnage caused by one of the race cars crashing into a jet dryer.

    Only 29, Keselowski easily has many more years and championships ahead of him.

Austin Dillon

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    Austin Dillon
    Austin DillonChuck Burton/Associated Press

    TOMORROW

    Austin Dillon is a third-generation NASCAR driver who can trace his roots back to his grandfather, team owner Richard Childress, whom Dillon refers to as "Pop Pop."

    After winning the Nationwide Series title in 2013, Dillon moves to Sprint Cup competition in 2014. He will be carrying the legacy of his grandfather's driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., by driving a car with the same number (3) as did Earnhardt during his championship years.

    Dillon wasn't handed the high-profile ride with his grandfather just because of his lineage, as some may suggest. He started racing go-karts as a youngster and growing up, he spent every spare moment away from his studies (he's a college graduate with a degree in communications) sitting in a race car.

    He's a candidate for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year title in 2014, along with the next driver...

Kyle Larson

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    Kyle Larson
    Kyle LarsonTerry Renna/Associated Press

    Kyle Larson's career path is reminiscent of another driver, Jeff Gordon. Larson's racing background is in open-wheel racing, starting with go-karts at the age of seven. He is a Japanese American and a graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program which is aimed at giving drivers from minority backgrounds and women a leg up into the world of NASCAR racing.

    In 2013, Larson earned the title of Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Despite being a relative unknown, he caught the racing world's attention when he was named as the replacement for veteran driver Juan Pablo Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing that same year.

    Some say Larson, at 21, is too young and inexperienced to be awarded a Sprint Cup ride. However, if his past displays of driving skill are any indication, he will fit in with "the big kids" quite easily.